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Harris uses personal story to court recent immigrants, communities of color

The California senator is partly focused on increasing Democratic margins over Trump, including in key battleground states.
Image: US-politics-vote-DEMOCRATS-HARRIS
Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, right, talks to people as she tours the West Oak Lane neighborhood in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 2020.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris has hewed mostly to campaign events outside the glaring spotlight of the day-to-day news cycle since becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee last month, venturing out to some battleground states, holding party-building events and headlining campaign fundraisers.

But from the start, Harris has also been busy connecting with immigrants and voters of color — sharing her own background as a child of immigrants in a way that was largely absent from her own presidential bid last year.

Harris, the U.S.-born daughter of a Jamaican father and a South Indian mother, brings a unique background to the ticket that the Biden campaign believes will energize those communities and boost the ticket in ethnically diverse battleground states like Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

The new emphasis on her personal history is a pivot from how she conducted her campaign last year, which she launched in January 2019 by telling reporters that she simply identifies as “American” and brushing off questions delving into her identity.

Since joining the ticket in August, however, the Biden campaign has sought to reintroduce Harris to the country by placing her identity — as a biracial Black and South Asian woman and a child of immigrants — front and center.

“She knows personally how immigrant families enrich our country, as well as the challenges of what it means to grow up Black and Indian American in the United States of America,” Joe Biden said when introducing Harris as his running mate. “Her story is America's story.”

Harris’ recent trips to Pennsylvania and Florida have included stops to engage with Black and Latino communities: a “Sister to Sister” conversation with Black women in Philadelphia, a stop at a Venezuelan restaurant in Miami for lunch. She travels to Michigan on Tuesday, where she will do similar voter outreach.

The move to showcase Harris’ background comes as the campaign tries to increase its margins over President Donald Trump within minority communities.

Although Harris appeared to struggle to attract support from Black voters during her own presidential run — which ended before any primary votes were cast — the Biden campaign views her addition to the ticket as an important way to connect with an increasingly diverse electorate following a summer of protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in police custody.

On Monday the campaign released its first testimonial ad focused solely on Harris, featuring four Black men from North Carolina discussing what her historic nomination means for their community and the women in their lives.

“When you pick Kamala, she gets it. She elevates the perspective as a woman of color,” a man named Zack says in the ad playing on TV and digital in Georgia. “Harris, who for me, is just the embodiment of somebody like my mother who can do anything.”

Campaign aides say Biden’s decision to choose Harris also reflects his promise to elevate diverse voices of all backgrounds who can advise him through their own lived experience.

Harris has shared stories about her experience as the child of immigrants at numerous campaign events, both virtual and on the ground. She’s mentioned her favorite Indian and Caribbean foods (idli and oxtail stew) in interviews and sported a shirt from her historically Black alma mater, Howard University, on the web show Verzuz, an online series created during the pandemic that started as a virtual DJ battle and has a primarily younger audience.

She's tied her background into policy questions as well. In a recent interview with a Telemundo station in Arizona, Harris was asked if she could promise a decrease in deportations, mentioning her mother’s own immigrant story.

“I can promise you that,” she said, adding: “I say that as the daughter of a mother who came to the United States when she was 19 years old by herself. We have a deep commitment to making sure that we are going to create a pathway toward citizenship.”

During her primary run, Harris focused attention on her history as a former prosecutor in California working “For the People.” It wasn’t until the campaign neared its end that Harris was cooking dosas with Mindy Kaling, a comedy star of Indian descent, and sharing with union audiences experiences of racism her mother faced as an immigrant.

Former Harris aides say the reluctance to share her story was the candidate’s own decision — that she preferred talking about her work than about herself, a lesson she had taken from her mother.

Even with Harris’ involvement, polls show the campaign still has some work to do. While Biden is leading Trump among Hispanic voters in the latest NBC News/WSJ oversample poll of Latinos, 62 percent to 26 percent, Hillary Clinton led Trump 63 percent to 16 percent nationally among Hispanic voters in September 2016 — a 10 percentage point bump for the president heading into November.

A recent Telemundo/BuzzFeed poll showed that for a majority of young Latino voters, tackling racial inequality is a top concern this election. Yet when asked to name a political figure who has shown up for the Latino community, the top answer was “nobody.”

Biden campaign aides say Harris’ experience as the U.S.-born child of immigrants resonates with voters put off by Trump’s explosive rhetoric around immigration.

And Neil Makhija, the executive director of Impact, an organization that encourages Indian Americans to run for office, said Harris’ attempts to connect with immigrant constituencies has increased engagement in the community.

“When you hear your story told and recognized and appreciated, as people have, then you’re also more comfortable to speak about it,” he said.